Vodka Marketing Turns Into A Circus

Absolut Seeks Inspiration from Cirque du Soleil While Smirnoff Plans 'Midnight Circus'

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As it charts a fresh global course under new agency Sid Lee, Absolut Vodka is looking to the circus for a little inspiration -- as in Cirque du Soleil.

The high-flying global live-event organization -- which has a minority stake in Sid Lee -- will serve as a loose model for the brand's next campaign, which is expected to include branded content, traditional advertising and a touring show beginning next fall, agency and brand executives told Ad Age .

"They have the know-how and the vision of putting spectacular shows on, which I think is really exciting for us to tap into that thinking," said Absolut Global Brand Director Mathias Westphal, citing Cirque's investment in the agency. Cirque, he added, "redefined circus and made it into something completely new. That is the vision that [Absolut] has as well ... putting on something that hasn't been seen before."

That seems like a high hurdle in the liquor category, which is known for glitzy event marketing. And circus-like acts seem to be en vogue.

For instance, Absolut competitor Smirnoff in August announced a global tour called "Smirnoff Midnight Circus," which it described as "not a circus in the traditional sense of the word, but a modern interpretation by the brand in collaboration with influencers and cutting-edge artists." The tour -- held in more than 25 cities from Argentina to Vietnam -- includes a collaboration with artist and photographer David LaChapelle, unannounced performances by top musical acts, DJs, mixologists and other performers. The effort follows the recent "Nightlife Exchange Project," a partnership among Madonna, Live Nation Entertainment and Smirnoff owner Diageo that last year included a global dance competition and a coordinated party held in some 50 countries. That program has now ended. Smirnoff's global creative agency is JWT, New York.

Absolut's goal is to "push the boundaries" of experiential marketing with a performance tour that will put a premium on audience participation, Mr. Westphal said. He did not share details because the program is still in development, but called it a "pretty big and spectacular play of some sort where consumers really are able to interact with the brand."

The addition of Sid Lee to Absolut's roster was announced earlier this month and marks a demotion for TBWA, which has been Absolut's lead agency since it created a print ad in 1981. Asked to define TBWA's role going forward, Mr. Westphal said, "I can't really exactly say what kind of brief will go their way right now, but they are still a preferred partner of ours." He said the brand is also keeping GreatWorks on board as a digital agency, even though Sid Lee will be handling digital as well.

The roster moves come as Pernod Ricard-owned Absolut continues to face fierce competition from premium vodka peers such as Grey Goose and Ciroc and less-expensive brands like Svedka. In the U.S., Absolut remains the No. 2 vodka with 8.5% market share, trailing Diageo's Smirnoff, which has 19.6%, according to SymphonyIRI. Absolut dollar sales increased 6.4% in the 52 weeks ending Dec. 2, but the brand lost share as category-aide sales jumped 12.5%, led by strong growth from Svedka, UV, Ciroc, Skol and Pinnacle.

While it might take a high-wire marketing act to compete in the image-conscious vodka category, Absolut will not be following the same exact branding script as Cirque du Soleil. "How we leverage Cirque du Soleil is not with their aesthetic, but what we are trying to leverage is their core competency in production," said Sid Lee Chairman Bertrand Cesvet. "These guys have toured and sold more tickets than anyone else in the world," he added. "They have an incredible engineering department. They have an incredible production organization."

Bertrand Cesvet
Bertrand Cesvet

Indeed, Sid Lee is in the process of establishing a new division called Sid Lee Entertainment, designed to "link the competencies of Cirque du Soleil and Sid Lee to create innovative consumer experiences." Both organizations are headquartered in Montreal. Cirque made its investment in Sid Lee last winter, after using the shop as its AOR for 10 years.

The new Absolut global campaign is expected to begin in the summer with "brand campaign manifesto" advertising, with the performance/experiential element added in the fall, Mr. Westphal said.

The effort marks a significant change for a brand that has been seemingly forever linked with TBWA, the creator of Absolut's iconic two-word campaign. The initial execution -- "Absolut Perfection" -- was pitched at the very first meeting between the agency and client, according to this account from Ad Age 's Encyclopedia of Advertising.

The print campaign went on to win multiple awards and helped land Absolut a spot in the Advertising Hall of Fame in 1993. In 1999, Ad Age ranked the campaign No. 7 on a list of the top 100 campaigns of the century.

Absolut in recent years has moved away from the product-focused effort in favor of multimedia campaigns, such as "Absolut World," which launched in 2007 and included one execution -- a map showing much of the U.S. Southwest as part of Mexico -- that created a furor in the states in 2008.

Of late, Absolut has taken more of a project-focused approach, including the ongoing "Absolut Greyhound," a multidimensional effort that includes a theme song by Swedish House Mafia. In August, the brand launched "Absolut Unique" featuring nearly 4 million uniquely designed bottles.

"We have a couple of different campaigns running in different parts of the world," Mr. Westphal said. But under Sid Lee, "we want to make sure that we move from a bit [of ] fragmented [approach] and really get into one strong global brand campaign that can work for all markets."

Still, there will be some differences from nation to nation. For instance, the iconic Absolut bottle will continue to play a big marketing role in the fast-growing markets of Brazil and China, where it is "still a big part of the news," said Mr. Cesvet.

In more-developed markets such as Western Europe and North America., "you cannot chuck away this asset," he said. "But at the same time you have to build upon that . You have to get beyond the mere exploitation of the bottle." He added: "If we want to move into the world of doing stuff ... we have to expand the message. There is additional information that needs to come through."

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